In a big victory for the Tamil Nadu government, the Supreme Court on Monday, upheld its decision to issue closure orders to Vedanta Private Limited's Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi district. The apex court has agreed to Tamil Nadu's argument that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) does not have the authority to repeal the government order against Sterlite. The court, further instructed the plant to take its plea to re-open the smelter, to the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court.
The National Green Tribunal on December 15 set aside the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's (TNPCB) closure order to Sterlite Copper and directed that electricity be restored to the smelter. The NGT stated in its final order that the grounds on which the state took the decision to shut the plant owned by Vedanta Ltd. was not sustainable and did not justify the impugned orders. The tribunal's stand was in line with that of the three-member committee constituted to probe the closure of the copper plant.
Following this the state government approached the Supreme Court questioning the validity of the NGT's judgement and to prove that Sterlite had violated environmental norms.
"The Supreme court has that the NGT does have the jurisdiction to interfere in the Tamil Nadu Government's order or even form a committee to address the issue," confirms a source in the TNPCB. "We have been maintaining that the NGT didn't have authority from the very beginning. This is a huge victory for Tamil Nadu," said a source in TNPCB.
Arguments made in court
The TNPCB argued in Supreme Court that the pollution levels of the groundwater in and around Vedanta group's Sterlite copper smelting plant in the state was very high and that there was no remedy to restore it to permissible levels.
Describing the situation as "unfortunate", senior counsel CA Vaidyanathan told the bench of Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman and Justice Navin Sinha that the "desirable level of water is 500 TDS and the permissible level is 2000 TDS but what is prevailing today is 15,000 to 20,000 TDS".
Defending the decision to close down the plant permanently, Vaidyanathan said that they have evidence that the groundwater has been contaminated because of the pollutants from the plant.
He further questioned the jurisdiction of the green tribunal to deal with the matter, and said, "the green tribunal could not have constituted a committee for going into the issue. That is not contemplated under the NGT Act. Adjudicating powers can't be delegated."
The counsel for Sterlite then argued that the State government has given it a bad name and that the pollution report that was shown to the court was six months after the plant was put under lock.
Describing the action against the plant as "political", senior counsel CA Sundaram appearing for Vedanta, said that the state government overlooked the plea for daily maintenance to plug the sulphuric acid leaks.
Vedanta then pointed out that unless electricity to the plant was restored, it would not be able to comply with the conditions imposed by the National Green Tribunal in its December 15, 2018 judgment.
The Tamil Nadu government, however, stated that the plant management resorted to quick fixes when the environmental violations were pointed out to them.
Endorsing the position taken by the TNPCB, the Tamil Nadu government defended the decision to permanently close the Thoothukudi Copper Smelting Plant. Defending the May 2018 order putting the plant under lock, senior counsel K.V. Vishwanathan said that the decision was based on sound reasons.
Why was plant closed?
On May 28, TNPCB ordered the closure and disconnection of electricity supply under provisions of Section 33A of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Section 31A of Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1971. Sterlite's aggrieved parent company Vedanta Private Limited then approached the NGT against the closure orders, following which an expert committee headed by former Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court Tarun Agarwal was formed to probe the matter.
The committee while admitting the plant caused pollution, still gave the green flag for it to be opened.
The five reasons given by the state government for refusal to grant consent to operate to Sterlite Copper included - i.Not furnishing groundwater analysis report; ii.Not removing copper slag stored along the River Uppar and not constructing physical barrier between the river and the slag, iii. The unit did not have authorization to generate and dispose hazardous waste; iv. The unit has not analyzed parameters of heavy metals in the ambient air quality; v. The unit has failed to construct gypsum pond as per CPCB guidelines.
(With IANS inputs)